Freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog. The government is full of well-intentioned and quite powerful inspectors general and similar internal accountability mechanisms. But like all big organizations, the national security branches of government include some people who aren’t purely selfless public servants. Secrecy is necessary and justified in many cases. But as hard-earned experience has shown us time and again, it can be—and often is—used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.
That’s where whistleblowers come in. They offer a pressure valve, constrained by the personal risk whistleblowers take, and fueled by whatever moral courage they can muster. Manning’s statement in court yesterday showed that, at least in his motives, he was part of that long-respected tradition. But that’s also where the Manning prosecution comes in, too. The prosecution case seems designed, quite simply, to terrorize future national security whistleblowers. The charges against Manning are different from those that have been brought against other whistleblowers. “Aiding the enemy” is punishable by death. And although the prosecutors in this case are not seeking the death penalty against Manning, the precedent they are seeking to establish does not depend on the penalty. It establishes the act as a capital offense, regardless of whether prosecutors in their discretion decide to seek the death penalty in any particular case.